Yaking with Hobie at Tarpon Lodge in Pine Island
Summer 2017, issue 28, page 68
Aerial view of Tarpon Lodge, the perfect place to relax, eat fine cuisine and hunt for snook, redfish and tarpon.
Episode One - Cornholed
I never expected to find myself in a bitter battle of cornhole with the president of a major watersports company. But, there I was, fondling my bean bags and going mano-a-mano with Mr. Doug Skidmore himself, AKA El Presidente de Hobie USA. I warned him that I had once beaten Dr. Guy Harvey himself in an epic cornhole showdown. He looked down at me (he’s tall) and smiled in a way to say, “Not impressed, peon scribe.” My intimidation methods were failing. On top of that, Doug is a lefty and everybody knows that lefties—from Sandy Koufax to Clayton Kershaw—can toss stuff with scary accuracy.
Circumstances had brought me to Tarpon Island, Florida, to test the latest and greatest Hobie kayaks with a gaggle of other writers, photographers and Hobie poobahs. My key contact was Hobie marketing guru, Keeton Eoff, who has become a fishing buddy and friend. Keeton, and his yak posse, had arrived to the isolated island with more than a dozen kayaks of all colors and sizes, and enough fishing rods and lures to start their own online shopping network.
Nestled between Sanibel and Captiva to the west and Cape Coral and Ft. Myers to the east, Pine Island remains a remote hideaway.
The plan was to fish the vibrant grass beds in the area, which is just a few miles south of Boca Grande pass, the well-known tarpon capital of the universe. From the moment I arrived, I fawned at those yaks with Christmas-morning anticipation. I’m what is technically known as a full-on kayak offshore fishing freakazoid (FOKOFF) and I began that journey in the late 1990s, a full decade before kayak fishing became so hip. Just call me a trendsetter. But back then, my buddies ridiculed me. They literally guffawed at my set up. “Hey Lewis,” they’d say, “where’s your buddy Clark?” Then I started catching more fish. That put a prop in their mouths real quick.
Back at the cornhole rumble, I couldn’t seem to strike fear into Skidmore. He was obviously a seasoned executive, impervious to weak scare tactics. So, I decided to offer him beer. We were well past sunset and the Florida heat demanded cold liquids, especially since he’d just come from the climate controlled luxury of Southern California where humidity is a concept as foreign as fast moving traffic. Unfortunately, the brewski seemed to calm his nerves and he tossed two bags through the hole back-to-back, Steph Curry style. My chances were looking grim. My only option was to “accidentally” stomp on his foot and hope to fracture a toe. But (full disclosure here), Hobie is an advertiser in Guy Harvey Magazine, so I sequestered my violent tendencies in favor of capitalistic advancement.
Nonetheless, I still wanted to beat the man fair and square. But he eventually crushed my dreams and left me staring wantingly at the cooler of beer. I slunked off mumbling under my breath something like, “I’ll damn sure catch more fish than he does.”Then I opened the cooler and submerged my entire noggin into the icy slush.
Episode Two - Fishing with JD
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m always late. Except for fishing. Never. Even after drowning my misery in copious beer, I’m early to the dock. The fireball was just peaking above the horizon as I approached what can only be described as a cluster you-know-what. A dozen fishermen were jockeying for the yak they wanted, the rods they desired and the fanciest lures. I imagined feeding a tribe of monkeys some double espresso and tossing in a bag of bananas. It would look like this. Caffeine and anticipation turns people into beasts. I looked around for my cornhole nemesis. Skidmore was apparently sleeping in, dreaming of his glorious victory.
Keeton had the look of a man wanting a large Texas bullwhip. To further complicate, we had two dudes from Germany and a Frenchman who kind of stood by and giggled at us: the uncivilized and uncultured. But, somehow, we eventually divvied up all of the goodies without injury or too many insults. I looked at the Germans. “It’s an American thing,” I said.
Both the ProAngler 12 and the ProAngler 14 were snatched up quickly. A small crowd had gathered around them and I sensed an oncoming international conflict. I’ve fished the PA12 and PA14 extensively so I opted for a red Outback 13, which was sitting all by itself like the runt puppy. My only concern: can I stand up in this sleeker, faster canoe? Keeton claimed that I could. “You probably won’t fall out,” he said weakly.
I was less concerned about the boat I was peddling than who I was following. I’d only fished the outer reaches of Boca Grande a few times, so I leaned on local knowledge to hook me up. I sidled up to “JD” John Donahue, a SW Florida native who put me on some nice snook a year earlier 30 miles north. He had a topwater lure tied on and one of my favs—a bone-colored Heddon Zara Spook with twin treble hooks.
“This is the ticket,” he said with a smile. I was all in.
Even with all of the morning monkey madness, we managed to launch before 7am. Within minutes, the group split up and I tailed JD southbound. It didn’t take long until we were in a school of redfish, a species I know like a brother. They were skittish but we managed to do battle with a few and scare away even more. A kayak is only stealthy if the pilot is quiet. Too much banging around and you might as well drop a cinder block into the water.
We did more touring than catching that day, but the Outback 13 proved to be plenty stable for me to stand, even when I donned my fly rod. I decided I’d keep it for day two and let the rest haggle over the PAs.
Rigged and ready. Self contained kayak fishing at its best.
As I pedaled back to the Tarpon Lodge dock around cocktail hour, I was tired, sunburned, hungry and in need of cool liquid. I slipped to the bar hoping no one noticed me. I’d already been frustrated by a slow afternoon of fishing; the last thing I needed was another cornhole whipping.
Episode Three - Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve: Snookalicious
From Tarpon Lodge, if you’re after the coveted Silver Kings, you just boogie north about six miles to world-famous Boca Grande pass. Tarpon catching at BGP has been the rage for more than 100 years. Yep, all the way back to the late 1800s when men wore coats and ties to fish. Our plan did not include tracking the ubiquitous silver fish, nor wearing anything but cool high-tech fabrics. Our hunt was for snook in a mangrove-infested and quite gorgeous place called Matlacha.
The bone Spook that JD had suggested was still hanging from my rod tip from the previous day so I pedaled deep into the mangroves, trying to lose my fellow “Hobits.” I found a dark trough running parallel to the mangroves and tossed the Spook, hoping for a big strike. Cast after cast. Nothing. An hour passed. Not even a surface slap. I even tried to get a mosquito to bite me.
Nada. I decided to take drastic measures. I reached into my tackle box and grabbed a Super Spook. As the name clearly explains to even the most muddy- brained fisherman, this is not just a Spook but a far better lure by the exact measurement of “Super.” It’s also a bit larger, heavier and has an extra treble hook. Its flingability is also super.
On my very first cast, the Super Spook landed with a loud, almost frightening splash. I popped it twice. As I was initiating my third twitch, a beast of a snookie broke the surface and inhaled the SS. I played the fish cautiously and soon landed it. After a quick selfie, I let her go to live long and prosper. Next cast. Another crash. A smaller but nonetheless plenty pissed off snook fought me valiantly: I brought him gently to daddy and then sent him on his way. Two casts later. Splash, crash. Another fish and then another and then still another. I had indeed stumbled into a sweet combination of the right lure, phase of the moon, tidal flow and mystic voodoo chants to produce a prodigious amount of snookmania. The universe smiled. I smiled, too. The kayak experience was once again proving fruitful.
The mid-morning wind began to howl and the launch site was, of course, directly upwind. I exited the calm of the mangrove jungle and pointed the bow into onslaught of one-to-two-foot waves. My legs burned but I pressed on until I ran into the Germans and Frenchman who were having their way with an invasion of ladyfish. The little tarpon imposters were attacking everything on every cast. I joined the melee for a minute and a half and then bid them au revoir and pedaled my way to safe haven.
There was talk of a real tarpon safari to Boca Grande, but the idea of a bunch of writers getting our lines tangled and perhaps falling into the jaws of a waiting hammerhead was too much for our hosts to bear. A vote was taken and we unanimously chose a ferry ride to Cabbage Key to attack a large platter of unsuspecting cheeseburgers and fries. I feared there would still be injuries but probably nothing life threatening.
Episode Four - Cabbage and Burgers
If your idea of Florida is a swanky beachfront resort in Miami or a wild night of partying in Key West, then Tarpon Lodge is not your dream vaca. Built in 1926, this historical resort is, as the website says, “Old Florida Frozen in Time.” This is laid back West Coast Florida at its best. Beautiful water, great weather, miles of fishy sea grasses and endless boating opportunities.
You’ve likely heard of the popular barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva as well as the towns of Cape Coral and Ft. Meyers. Well, Pine Island sits between those two islands and those two cities, yet it has an aura of remoteness because you lumber along on a long, two-lane blacktop to get there. And once you arrive, all you see is lots of water, uninhabited islands and endless fishing territory. The place is perfectly manicured and beautifully maintained by the Wells family, who took over the resort in 1999.
I had the pleasure of hanging with Rob Wells, whose dad bought Cabbage Key and moved the family there. Rob and his brother grew up living on the island and taking a boat to school. It sounded romantic but he laughed and said the hour-and-a-half ride to school ended the love affair pretty quickly.
As we learned on our Cabbage Key burger tour, the island is insanely popular for boaters passing through or just hanging for a while. There are beautiful accommodations there and, of course, the famous restaurant. This eatery, as well as many other beach joints, claims that Jimmy Buffett was inspired to write his song about their burgers in paradise. Maybe. I ate one and was motivated to drink another beer. Inspiration comes in many ways, I guess.
Episode Five - Bye Bye
Even though our intrepid group didn’t make it to Boca Grande, I mapped out a strategic plan of attack for my next visit—this time with my lovely wife so she could enjoy the place I blustered about. Nonetheless, in just three days, we got the sweet taste of Pine Island and Tarpon Lodge and all that the area offers.
As I was heading for the car with my bags in tow, I saw Skidmore warming up at the cornhole arena. Our eyes met briefly and he tilted his head as if to invite me over for a rematch. I knew in my heart that I could whip him and bring pride to all of my fellow Floridians who covet the arid climes of California. But I had a flight to catch. I smiled, waved and decided to build my very own cornhole court so I’d be ready for battle in the future.
Cabbage Key from the air where locals claim that Jimmy Buffett penned his song, Cheeseburger in Paradise.
You can check out more from this issue of Guy Harvey magazine Here